Skip Your Way in to a Jig

Skip Your Way in to a Jig
  • Quick Irish Dance Facts
    • No two dresses are alike. Some cost as much as $3,000; most are handmade in Ireland. Dresses go in and out of style, just like regular fashion.
    • When Britain controlled Ireland, they banned dancing or any form of “celebrating.” In response, the Irish would dance with their arms by their sides so from outside a building, it would not look like dancing.
    • We wear wigs to show the liveliness of our dancing. The curls bounce up and down as we dance.
    • Team dances, or ceilis, can be danced with two to sixteen people at a time.

Cassandra Ratzlaff, Editor

If you have ever felt like giving up, you’re not alone. Almost everyone has been there at some point. This situation could be a child trying to win a game and feeling at some point that he is outnumbered or at a disadvantage and choosing to leave the game. Or the situation could be a man starting a business fighting to profit after years of struggle who decides he just can’t go any longer. But some who really have a passion or drive to win, find a way to keep going and end up reaching their goals.

As an Irish dancer, I’ve had many opportunities to give up, but I’ve always found a reason to carry on. I would like to welcome you into my world of Irish Dancing and the good and bad that comes with it. So Céad Mile Fáilte, a hundred thousand welcomes.

Although I am not Irish, Russian Romanian in fact, I was introduced to this form of dancing by my Irish preschool teacher. At the time, she was looking for extra money and was struggling to find another job. My mom suggested to her to start teaching “some of that Irish stuff.” Then, at the age of three, I became one of her first students of the Drake School of Irish Dance. I fell in love with this extremely unique form of dance – blood, sweat, tears, and all.

I have been dancing for fourteen years now, and like everyone, I’ve had my ups and downs. The first time I saw my dance teacher perform, I was captivated and wanted to be just like her. But at the age of three, the year I began, I sat in the corner for a few years not wanting to participate.

By the age of six, my dance career significantly turned for the best when an extremely talented new dancer around my age joined the class. I felt the competition seething around me and my motivation was kick started. I worked through the levels, surpassing Beginner, Advanced Beginner, Novice, and made my way into Prizewinner. In order to pass a level, dancers must receive two first places in each of the four main dances – Reel, Slip Jig, Treble Jig, and Hornpipe – where one judge determines your fate.

I spent three years stuck in Prizewinner, not because of this rule, but because the next level is oftentimes the most challenging. I wanted so badly to transfer into the next level, Preliminary Championships. I didn’t know at the time that my mom and my dance teacher were keeping me back to prevent the tears and hardship that come with this most exerting level. Despite that, I was ready to give up. Most the kids in my class that started after me were moving up in to “Prelims” and I was left behind. But some little voice in my head told me to keep going and not to give up; everybody has their time, for some it just comes earlier than others.

My years spent in “Prelims” was extremely grueling and stressful, but it made me into the dancer I am today. The more strenuous Prelims have very different regulations and concepts than the previous levels. Rather than competing in the four main dances, you pick two; one soft shoe (either Reel or Slip Jig) and the other hard shoe (either Treble Jig or Hornpipe). Three independent judges place each dancer using “Irish points” for both dances and the highest receiving dancer wins the competition. Like the preceding levels, you too must place first twice in order to move to the next level. Each individual judge has their own preference of a dancer and thus chooses their own winner.

I spent the majority of my dancing career in this level trying to prove to the judges that I was the winner they wanted. After years went by without placing, I began to think that maybe this wasn’t the sport for me. I was in a slump, and I didn’t know how to get out of it. If it wasn’t for my dad, I would have quit that year. He told me that I had to rise above this and not focus on the negative. He told me that there would be plenty of positives for me in the future if I thought the dream was possible.

Prelims and the next, highest level, Open Championships, are levels designed to prepare oneself for the regional competition in December, the Oireachtas, meaning “gathering.” The Oireachtas, or sometimes referred to as “The O” by my friends and me, is the most important competition of the year. We find ourselves stressing and obsessing over every little thing imaginable, like the placement of our arms and an unthinkable finger sticking out of the intended fist; my ongoing problem. We spend the entire year preparing for this competition and it continues on in a circle for as long as we are competing; it never stops!

The Oireachtas  is the event that qualifies you for the North American Irish Dance Championships, or North American Nationals (NANs), and the Oireachtas Rince Na Cruine, or the World Irish Dance Championships (A.K.A. the Olympics of Irish Dancing). Three judges at the “O” determine your fate and the opportunity of going forward to the Nationals or the Worlds.

There are roughly 150 dancers in each age group competition of the Oireachtas, and the number and level of competitors increase at the NANs and even more at the Worlds. In all competitions, two or three dancers, from different schools, at a time compete for the judges attention as they dance their two respective dances. The top half of the competition will recall and come back to dance a solo hardshoe dance to their “set” music of their choice. All scores from the three rounds determine the standings. At the O, if you place roughly in the top 25%, you qualify for the NANs. If you place roughly in the top 5%, you qualify for the Worlds. Like the Olympics, each competition’s location changes each year.

There is always going to be someone better than you and you can’t let that get the best of you. There is a reason that person is better than you. They may be working harder or have greater potential, but it is up to you to work up to what you’re capable of, in order to accomplish your goals. Your goals are set for you and you only.

I was nine years old when I entered my first Oireachtas. I did not recall, nor did I place. I was devastated, and to make it worse, the new dancer who joined the class placed seventh. I was jealous of her success. She worked hard only because my dance teacher knew she had potential and pushed her, but you could tell that she didn’t love to dance. I loved to dance, I worked hard for my accomplishments, but never got the attentive instruction from my teachers that I wanted so badly. Nevertheless, my competitor and I became the best of friends. I called her “Squeekers” and she called me “Peanut,” but it was hard when she was always in the spotlight. A few years later, she quit and sadly, I never saw her again.

Another girl who became my friend through dance was a year older than me and had transferred to the Drake School from Ohio about four years prior. She was an unbelievable dancer, placing in the top three at the Oireachtas year after year. We were BFFL’s, two peas in a pod, PB&J, and we were inseparable. I commended her accomplishments because I knew she deserved them. Continuing the tradition of nicknames, I called her Fabio and she called me Pablo. But like most teenage girls, Fabio and Pablo had drama. I was always there for Fabio when she needed my help, but when I had an injury and had to take time off, I needed some sympathy. We stopped speaking to each other and then she moved to Naples soon after, where we lost all communication. She came to Sarasota to attend classes occasionally and we slowly became friends again. Unfortunately, she had an injury that prevented her from dancing, and she was forced to quit.

Throughout the years, I’ve stayed friends with one person who I am still friends with today. I call her Bob, but I forget the true reason this came to be, it was so long ago. She was the first person to call me Pablo, initiating the spur of nicknames over the years. She’s two years older than me and is in college now, but still manages to come to classes. I’ve never seen a dedication like hers. We’re in the same level, Open Championships, and we support each other through the good and the bad. She is truly the one dancer I can look up to and learn from.

If it is possible, try to find at least one person you can look up to and can help you; it can really get you through your tough spots of your career or hobby and get you closer to reaching your goal.

I only have one year left of dance before I go off to college. I wish I could follow the legacy of Bob and continue on throughout college, but I might have to leave my Sarasota family behind. I love to perform and one of my dreams is to tour with a dance troupe like Riverdance. If I can’t pursue this dream, I’d like to take part in the Irish Dance show at Busch Gardens in Tampa.

I started teaching a beginner class with my dance teacher last year and absolutely loved being there. I thought little kids were annoying until I began teaching them irish dance. Despite their youthful craziness, I became really close to my little beginners and saw my beginner self in them; I hope I am able to see them grow as dancers.

I am using this last year to really push myself and hope to grow as a dancer as well. I’ve qualified for the Nationals each year and have come so close to qualifying for the World Championships. This year is the last opportunity I have to complete this ultimate goal of my dancing career. If you see me around school passed out in the middle of the hallway, you’ll know the twenty hours of practice a week is getting to me.